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Early Development and Education
A good beginning: Social and emotional competence for school readiness

Children who enter kindergarten without adequate social and emotional competence face a cascade of problems throughout their young lives and into adulthood. Social and emotional competence are rooted in secure relationships with attachment to parent(s) or primary caregiver(s) during infancy and the toddler years. Socially competent children are confident, friendly, have good peer relationships or the ability to develop them, and can concentrate on, and persist at, challenging tasks.

What protective factors of children help them succeed in school?

  • Child's self-confidence.
  • Higher cognitive functioning.
  • Easier temperament.
  • Higher level of maternal education.
  • Emotional support from an alternative caregiver.
  • Parents maintaining positive relationships with children.
  • Stable, organized, predictable home environment.
  • High quality child care at an early age.
  • Secure attachment in infancy and an early history of positive functioning.
  • Larger number of classroom friends.
  • A secure attachment in infancy and an early history of positive functioning.
  • Residence with either parents or remarriage after divorce.

What protective factors lead to resiliency for children and families in difficult circumstances?

Research tells us that several major factors appear to preserve or build an individual's resiliency. These elements have strong implications for establishing programs in unstable or hostile environments where a child or adult may be at high risk for victimizations. Parenting and child care programs should explore ways to incorporate the following factors in a program to strengthen emotional and physical well-being:

  • Access to culturally appropriate personal support.
  • Continuance of traditional rituals, celebrations and practices.
  • The opportunity to exercise control over some aspect of their lives.
  • Daily routines and common rituals.
  • Consistent intervention program structure.
  • Interaction with positive role models from the individual's cultural tradition.
  • Opportunities to express feelings and sort out thoughts and beliefs.
  • Context in which to develop a sense of purpose.

Community Environment

  • Opportunities for employment and education, growth and achievement.
  • Adult training and educational programs.
  • Local community coalitions.
  • Absence of lead, and environmental cleanup.

What factors put children and families at risk?

Family Environment

  • Exhibiting aggressive, or alternatively aggressive and withdrawn behavior by the time children are 3 years old.
  • Low levels of maternal education and maternal depression.
  • Lack of consistent parenting practices: Harsh or inconsistent discipline, lack of emotional interaction between the parent and child, lack of parental supervision.
  • Children exposed to caregivers low in nurturing and high in criticism.
  • Difficulty in peer and sibling relationships and play behavior.
  • Quality of parent-child interaction and attachment.
  • Neuro-developmental delay, low birth weight, and other medical problems.
  • Difficult temperament, e.g., high activity level, inflexibility, distractibility, low attention to tasks.
  • Communication problems (speech, hearing, cognition) and emotional/behavioral difficulties in young children.

School Environment

  • Repeating the first grade.
  • Pattern of absenteeism from child care.
  • Children exposed to caregivers low in nurturing and high in criticism.
  • Difficulty in peer and sibling relationships and play behavior.
  • When cognitive skills are affected by injury or illness such as head injury, chronic illness, epilepsy, severe malnutrition and prematurity, behavior and social success in early school are affected.
  • Communication problems (speech, hearing, cognition) and emotional/behavioral difficulties in young children.
  • Poor verbal skills, negative attitudes to school, lowered self-expectations and behavioral difficulties.

Community Environment

  • Lack of access to quality health care and health insurance.
  • Lack of quality early care and education programs.
  • Lower quality schools.
  • Lack of access to transportation.
  • Poor housing conditions.
  • Lack of community awareness of need for early intervention.
  • Daily routines and common rituals.
  • Consistent intervention program structure.

What have we learned about how to support children's social and emotional competence?

Interventions can be designed at universal, selective (targeted) or indicated levels, with enormous social and ethical differences and policy implications (Gordon 1983). Bronfenbrenner (1974) suggests these are the levels at which interventions operate within the "ecology of childhood." This literature review focuses on interventions directed toward groups defined by risk; therefore, all noted interventions operate at the selective (targeted) level. The interventions reviewed were designed to address a specific primary risk factor, with some interventions also considering related or multiple risk factors.

  • Use targeted and/or selective interventions for groups of children at risk for difficulties in adapting to school. For example, prior to kindergarten entrance, it may be useful to identify children prone to maladaptive behavioral dispositions, e.g., aggression, and involve them in targeted interventions designed to promote prosocial, adaptive behaviors such as pursuing positive contacts with peers.
  • Universal interventions to help all families provide children with important formative experiences in school settings. For example, arranging for children to attend pre-school and to develop neighborhood friendships with peers before entering elementary school. In planning peer composition of new classrooms, school administrators might consider grouping children so as to maximize contact with prior friends (Rutter, 1990).

  • Policy changes facilitate the integration of the medical and educational systems to ensure children's social and emotional readiness for school.

  • Parents and consistent caregivers play a protective role in developing the social and emotional competence in children.Consistent and positive relationships with parents, peers and teachers that are established early play an important role in social competence and school success.
  • Select multiple interventions and strategies that complement one another and reflect the community and families.
  • Policymakers, practitioners and researchers must work together to improve delivery of services and improve the flow of knowledge between agencies and disciplines.
  • The public and private sectors must work together to develop standards for quality care and models of early intervention for school success.
  • Comprehensive assessment and treatment practices can only be achieved through nonfragmented services.

What do we know about social and emotional school readiness?

  • Social and emotional competence is central to success in school.
  • Social and emotional school readiness is related to later school and vocational success.
  • Children's early relationships are the foundation for social and emotional competence in early childhood.
  • Emotional and social competency can be defined and measured.
  • Cultural issues are of prime importance, and family background must be respected in the development of research and policy.
  • Both risk and protective factors must be identified and their relative significance established to shape and re-shape researched-based intervention programs.

Selected Sources:

Cavanaugh, D.A, Lippitt, J., and Mayo, O. (2000). Resource guide to selected policies affecting children's emotional and social development and their readiness for school. In Off to a Good Start: Research on the Risk Factors for Early School Problems and Selected Federal Policies Affecting Children's Social and Emotional Development and Their Readiness for School. Chapel Hill, N.C. University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center.

Huffman, L.C., Mehlinger, S.L., and Kerivan, A.S. (2000). Risk factors for academic and behavioral problems at the beginning of school. In Off to a Good Start: Research on the Risk Factors for Early School Problems and Selected Federal Policies Affecting Children's Social and Emotional Development and Their Readiness for School. Chapel Hill, N.C. University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center.

Peth-Pierce, R. (2000). A Good Beginning: Sending America's Children to School with the Social and Emotional Competence They Need to Succeed. Child Mental Health Foundations and Agencies Network monograph. Bethesda, Md., National Institute of Mental Health, Office of Communication and Public Liaison.

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Babies and toddlers in child care

High quality group care for infants and toddlers can enrich a child's early experience and also provide essential support to families. The key to quality child care for babies and toddlers is a high-quality relationship with caregivers. Through a close relationship with caring adults -- both parents and caregivers -- children flourish and learn about the world and themselves.

Child care for babies and toddlers in this country is bleak. A national study found that in nearly half of the classrooms in centers serving children under 3, children's health, safety and development were compromised. In other studies, for babies and toddlers in family child care or by relatives, the care was no better.

Zero To Three's publication, "Caring for Infant and Toddlers in Groups: Developmentally Appropriate Practices", identifies nine key elements for quality care for babies and toddlers.

What do babies and toddlers need to thrive in child care?

  • Small groups with high staff-to-child ratios create a sense of intimacy and safety. Small groups build strong relationships with individual children and also meet the changing interests, development and needs of the group.
  • Staff trained in childhood development and program licensed and accredited. Ongoing training, good salaries and benefits are essential to attracting and retaining quality caregivers.
  • A continuous primary caregiver for each child helps build a positive, continuing intimate relationship with the child.
  • Continuity of care with one primary caregiver for more than a year is important to the child's emotional development. Infants should not be moved from caregiver to caregiver.
  • Responsive caregiving involves knowing each child and taking cues from the child about when to guide, when to teach and when to intervene.
  • Caregivers who are culturally sensitive and recognize their own values and how they are transmitted to children support cultural, linguistic and family continuity. Programs that employ staff that are of the same language and culture support the early development and respect the child-rearing values and beliefs of the child's family.
  • Meeting the needs of the individual within the group context by caregivers means being respectful and responsive to the needs, temperament, moods and preferences of each child and providing care to meet those individual needs.
  • Promotion of health and safety requires that group child care maintain high standards in sanitary practices and environments. Staff plans carefully for food preparation and diapering and toileting; have detailed health policies, emergency and injury procedures, child and staff health records and concise policies and staff procedures. Staff shares current health and safety information with each other and with family members.
  • Age-appropriate physical environment promotes intimate, satisfying relationships with spaces for growing babies and toddlers. A wide variety of interesting objects, textures and physical challenges are age-appropriate and safe.

What so parents need to consider about the ability of a child care program or family child care provider for their baby or toddler?

  • What training do staff have in infant/toddler development?
  • Does the caregiver use simple words to talk with my child?
  • Does the caregiver enjoy children?
  • Am I welcome to drop in at any time?
  • Will my child feel good about coming here?
  • Is the environment sanitary and safe?
  • Is the child care program or family child care provider licensed?
  • It the child care program accredited? Examples include the National Association for the Education of Young Children or the National Association of Family Child Care?
  • Does this caregiver respect the language, culture and values of my family?
  • Is there a primary caregiver for my child?
  • Are the ratios and group size appropriate for my child's age?
  • Are toys and materials well organized so my child can choose what interests him or her?
  • Is this caregiver and environment able to accommodate the special needs of my child?
  • Do the caregiver and I agree on discipline? Weaning? Toileting? Feeding?

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Developing and supporting literacy-rich environments for children

Early reading success is a strong predictor of academic success in later grades, and the early childhood years (birth through age 8) are critical ones for literacy development. After grade three, demands on the student change from "learning to read" to "reading to learn," as reading becomes a fundamental means to acquire new knowledge about all subjects.

Based on current research, literacy development begins long before children begin formal instruction in elementary school. It develops on a path where children acquire literacy skills in a variety of ways and at different ages. Early behaviors such as "reading" from pictures and "writing" scribbles are an important part of children's literacy development. Social interactions with caring adults and consistent exposure to literacy materials such as storybooks nourish literacy development. "Literacy-rich environments" offer daily, extended conversations with adults about topics that are meaningful and of interest to children

Why should we be concerned about literacy development in children?

One of every three kindergarteners comes to school unprepared to learn. More importantly, parents routinely read to only 50 percent of infants and toddlers. For children to be successful in school, they must have early experiences with language. Research clearly shows that the child's experiences with oral language development and literacy in the first months of life begin the foundation for later reading success.

We know that children need three skills to become good readers. Good readers have an understanding of how the alphabet works, an awareness that reading is about meaning, and sufficient fluency in reading. Some children acquire these skills quickly, Other children need to be taught about the relationship among letters, that letters represent small sounds in words, and about the relationship of specific letters to specific sounds, Often, parents, caregivers and teachers need to help children understand that the reason they read is to uncover a message. The most effective way to support children's ability to provide literacy-rich environments.

What is a literacy-rich environment?

In a literacy-rich environment, adults ensure that children engage in one-to-one conversations about everyday life-about people, events and activities that children find interesting. Environments include daily reading, talking, experimentation with reading materials, book talk (characters, action and plot), and dramatic play. In this environment there are many opportunities for children to see how print is used for many purposes. Print and language become a functional part of daily play and practice.

What are the characteristics of a print rich-literacy environment?

  • Children are surrounded by oral language, books and print. Various reading and writing materials are available for children and adults.
  • Adults share their ideas and feelings with children and encourage them to express themselves.
  • Children see adults reading for pleasure and a function of their daily routine and activities.
  • Adults value children's emergent reading and writing experiences. They accept children's efforts without correcting mistakes or providing direct instruction.
  • Children learn about the world through talking and reading, refining these skills as children develop.
  • Children's knowledge of language is built on their own exploratory skills to interesting topics that is supported by skilled teachers and a well thought out curriculum.

What can policymakers do to support literacy development in children?

  • Raise public awareness to help parents realize the importance of their being a child's first teacher.
  • Provide resources and information about how to support and develop literacy in children and the importance of providing a print-rich environment.
  • Improve professional development in child care settings, pre-school and primary grades in literacy development and teaching reading. Special emphasis should be placed on child care and pre-school settings.
  • Increase access to literacy-rich environments by increasing children's access to quality early education.

Jerlean Daniels, Theresa Clarke and Mark Ouellette. Issue Brief, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, 2000

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Emotional and behavioral well-being of young children

What is practice telling us about early childhood mental health?

Early childhood mental health is the term used to deal with the emotional, social and behavioral needs of young children from birth to 6 or even 8 years, through both developmental and clinical perspectives. Little attention has been paid to the mental health (social and emotional problems) of young children. The trends from practice-based perspectives are these:

  • Increasing numbers of children are less prepared to cope with the demands of the child care and school environments than in the past.
  • More children are entering early childhood settings with fewer intellectual, social and emotional school readiness skills than in the past.
  • The levels of provocative, inappropriate and challenging behaviors frequently overwhelm staffs in early childhood care settings.
  • Higher levels of parent depression are reported. So, too, is parental involvement in substance abuse and family or community violence.
  • Children are being "expelled" from child care programs because they are unprepared to cope with demands of these environments.
  • Data from early efforts to provide mental health services to infants and toddlers confirm the picture of family stress and disorder, and increasing numbers of children with serious emotional disturbance.

What is research telling us about early childhood mental health?

Multiple streams of research support the rationale for paying attention to the emotional development of all young children -- those with clinically significant problems and those at high risk of developing such problems. The critical need for early childhood mental health services and systems development are these:

Lack of warm, nurturing relationships. Research suggests that early disruptions in emotional development and caregiving relationships can have long-term negative consequences.

  • Brain development in young children suggests not only the importance of early experiences for cognitive development but also, significantly, for emotional development. Children deprived of early warm and nurturing relationships may experience such life-long adverse consequences as impaired school performance and difficulties in establishing warm and nurturing relationships.
  • Evidence suggests that high levels of stress in the earliest years can undermine brain development. Depression has been linked to punitive parenting behaviors to anxiety and aggression in children.
  • A child's biological system in conjunction with early stressful experiences associated with poverty, parental substance abuse and mental illness can undermine brain development that set the stage for early-onset conduct disorder and later involvement in delinquency, emotional and behavioral disability and other high-cost social outcomes.
  • The additive effect of increasing numbers and combinations of risk factors such as marital discord, very low income, large family size, parental criminality, maternal psychiatric disorder and child welfare involvement place children with multiple risk factors at very high risk of problem behaviors.
  • Children experiencing two risk factors were four times as likely to have a psychiatric impairment compared to children not exposed to any risk factor or were exposed to one. Children with four risk factors were 10 times as likely to have a psychiatric impairment as those with one or none.
  • There is evidence of the concurrence of communications problems and emotional and behavioral difficulties in young children.
  • There is a lag between when problems are first identified and when appropriate services begin for children.
  • The impact of risk factors is lessened for children who experience "buffers" such as a warm, caring relationship with an adult.

what is the aim of early childhood mental health strategies?

The evidence that negative patterns can be transformed has direct implications for the design of general early childhood and family support programs that incorporate an intensive preventive intervention perspective. Family-centered services to young children with challenging behaviors, emotional or behavioral disabilities or those at high risk of developing them are critical to the prevention of later difficulties. Early childhood mental health initiatives can be defined as a set of strategies and perspectives that:

  • Promote the emotional and behavioral well-being of young children, particularly those whose emotional development is compromised because of poverty or other environmental or biological risks.
  • Help families of young children address barriers to ensure that their children's emotional development is not compromised.
  • Expand the competencies of non-family caregivers to help promote the emotional well-being of young children and families, particularly those at risk for environmental or biological factors.
  • Ensure that young children experiencing clearly atypical emotional and behavioral development and their families can access services and support.
  • Federal policy mandating that all children shall enter school ready to learn has largely been interpreted as a mathematical and reading literacy, or community issue. Positive emotional and behavioral patterns are essential to learning and social achievement.
  • Federal policy mandating that all low-income women work as a condition for receiving public benefits has attempted to reduce barriers to employability in vulnerable populations such as adults affected by substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence. But adults with these barriers to employability and also with young children may need extra attention to promote good mental health and development in their children.

What should the primary support system for childhood mental health strategies look like?

Incorporate mental health principles, particularly those focused on relationship building, into the core approach of primary support programs such as home visiting and early care and education programs. Effective programs have three critical factors:

  1. Child development knowledge and relationship-building to promote positive parent-child relationships and interactions.
  2. A focus on relationship building to foster social interaction and communication between the mother and child, as well as to decrease social isolation of the mother. A sense of competence as person and parent is necessary. Education, information and resources alone are insufficient.
  3. Parent involvement or parent support approaches must be integrated into early care settings focusing on child development knowledge and relationship-building. Promote positive parent-child relationships among groups of parents by using guided group discussion. Parents solve problems together sharing reactions, strategies and frustrations.

What are the core principles of an early childhood mental health system?

  • A family-centered early childhood mental health service strategy includes mental health and related services designed to support parents of young children to nurture and build caring relationships.
  • A family-centered early childhood mental health service strategy includes mental health and related services designed to support non-parental caregivers of young children to nurture and build caring relationships.
  • A family-centered early childhood mental health service strategy includes mental health and related services delivered, to the greatest extent possible, in natural settings, including homes, child care, health care and family support settings.
  • A family-centered early childhood mental health service strategy should be sensitive to cultural, community and ethnic values of families.
  • Caregivers, home visitors and administrators working with infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers should have access to clinical services, case consultation and clinical supervision to strengthen their competencies in promoting emotional development in all young children at high risk for developing diagnosable problems, and in young children with already diagnosed problems.
  • Family service workers, home visitors, and others working with families of infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers and their families (including kinship and other foster parents, grandparents, and non-custodial fathers) should have access to mental health program consultation, case consultation and back-up support for families requiring more intensive interventions, particularly when there are issues of substance abuse, domestic violence, child maltreatment, depression or other mental illness.
  • Caregivers, home visitors, family workers and administrators working with families of infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers should have access to clinical supervision and support in dealing with such staff issues as burnout, cultural and workplace conflict.
  • Young children, families, and programs experiencing crises related to violence, community disasters or family-specific upheavals should have immediate and as-necessary access to crisis intervention and support.
  • Developing a family- and caregiver-centered early childhood mental health service system requires building partnerships between both primary and secondary support services in the community and state.
  • Develop state-specific incentives to encourage local collaboration among mental health, substance abuse, early intervention and early childhood programs.
  • Strengthen systems of training for child care and early education providers to include a focus on dealing with the most psychologically vulnerable young children and families and to increase attention to early childhood mental health issues in training programs for social work, psychology and allied disciplines.
  • Pay attention to what home visitors do, the kind of clinical supervision they have, andthe intensity of the intervention.

Knitzer, Jane (2000). Early childhood mental health services: A policy and systems development perspective. In Jack P. Shonkoff & Samuel J. Meisels (Eds.), Handbook of Early Childhood Intervention (2nd ed., pp. 416-438). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Entering kindergarten

This report contains data gathered by the Department of Education on a national sample of 19,000 children entering kindergarten in the fall of 1998. Children were assessed using standardized, one-on-one assessments to measure early academic skills in three domains: reading, mathematics, and general knowledge.

To reflect the "whole child" view of school readiness, child assessments included measures of physical growth and fine and gross motor development. Reports from parents and teachers were collected about children's health, social skills, problem behavior and approaches to learning. In addition, children were identified according to those family background characteristics or risk factors found to be associated with poor educational outcomes.

The results of this study point out that a sizable minority of children are experiencing risks for developmental difficulties and less than conducive approaches to learning tasks. 25% of kindergartners are described as eager to learn no more than "sometimes" or "never" and 33% are paying attention with similar frequency. Majorities of both teachers and parents rate a child's ability to sit still and pay attention in class as essential or very important for school readiness making these findings significant. Most teachers also rate children's ability to communicate needs and wants to others as crucial for school success yet one in nine kindergartners are entering school not articulating words clearly or fluently.

Family Risk Factors

Children who have one or more family-risk factors are more likely to be educationally disadvantaged or have difficulty in school. Family-risk factors are linked to lower proficiency in reading and mathematics skills and general knowledge among children as they enter kindergarten. Children who have two or more risk factors exhibit greater achievement lags, poorer health, more problem behavior and less positive approaches to learning than do children with a single risk factor. Research suggests that health conditions affecting at-risk children are more apt to be developmental and emotional, rather than physical.

Age Differences

Children who are close to 6 or already 6 when they enter kindergarten have several advantages over children who have just turned 5 or are not yet 5. Older children tend to be more mature, and have learned much more than younger children before they enter school. Better-educated parents are more likely to hold their children back than less educated parents, compounding the developmental disparities between older and younger children.

Gender Differences

Female kindergartners display reading skills slightly more advanced on average, than those of males. They are less likely to have developmental difficulties and more likely to exhibit good social skills and classroom behavior. The early signs of behavior and adjustment problems in boys may be predictive of later and more serious disturbances. In contrast to these differences, despite the equivalent mathematic skills and general knowledge that females display in relation to boys when starting kindergarten tend to lag in later grades.

Key Findings

Family risk factors associated with poor educational achievement:

  1. Having a mother with less than a high school education.
  2. Living in a family that received food stamps or cash welfare payments.
  3. Living in a single-parent household.
  4. Having parents whose primary language is something other than English.

Findings associated with family risk factors:

  • 46% of kindergartners have one or more risk factors.
  • 31% of kindergartners have only one risk factor.
  • 16% have two or more risk factors.
  • 66% of 6-year-olds have none of the four risk factors, and 10% have two or more.

Family risk factors associated with urban versus suburban areas:

  • 63% of kindergartners from cities with populations above 250,000 have one or more risk factors and 26% have multiple risk factors versus suburbs of large cities and small towns where the situation is almost reversed.

Family risk factors associated with minority differences:

  • 75% of kindergartners from black or Hispanic families have one or more risk factors, versus 29% from white families.
  • 33% of Hispanic families and 27% of black families have two or more risk factors, versus 6% of hon-hispanic white families.
  • 61% of Asian children have at least one risk factor but 44% have one risk only.

Reading assessment:

Reading was assessed at five proficiency levels:

  1. Identifying uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet by name.
  2. Associating letters with sounds at the beginning of words.
  3. Associating letters with sounds at the ends of words.
  4. Recognizing common words by sight.
  5. Reading words in context.

Several tasks asked the children which way to go when reading and where they would find the end of a printed story.

Reading assessment findings:

  1. 66% of kindergartners can recognize upper or lowercase letters of the alphabet by name.
  2. 61% have two or more print familiarity skills such as knowing that English print is read from left to right and from the end of one line to the beginning of the next line and knowing where a story ends.
  3. Two-thirds of kindergartners performed tasks successfully at the first level.
  4. 29% of kindergartners can do more than recognize letters by name; they can associate them with sounds at the beginning of words.
  5. 17% can associate letters with sounds at the end of words.
  6. 18% of kindergartners do not know that English print is read from left to right and from top to bottom or where a story ends.
  7. 34% cannot identify letters of the alphabet by name; they are not yet at the first level of reading proficiency.

Age- related differences in reading skills:

  • 73% of kindergartens who are about to turn 6 at the start of the school year are able to identify letters by name versus 56% of children who have not yet turned 5.
  • 22% of pupils about to turn 6 are able to associate letters with sounds at the beginnings and ends of words versus 11% of pupils about to turn 5.

Differences in reading skills associated with risk factors:

  • 33% of children with one risk factor have reading scores that fall in the lowest 25% versus 16% of the no risk group.
  • 47% of children with two or more risk factors have reading scores that fall in the lowest 25%.
  • 44% of multiple risk children could identify letters of the alphabet versus 57% of children in the single risk group and 75% of children in the no risk group.
  • 22% of the no risk group, 11% of the single risk group and 6% of the multiple risk group were at the third proficiency level in reading.

Mathematics assessment findings:

  • 94% of first-time kindergartners can recognize some single-digit numerals, identify simple geometric figures like squares and circles, and count to 10.
  • 58% can recognize all single-digit numbers, count beyond 10 identify the similarities in patterns, and compare the relative length of objects using nonstandard units.
  • 20% can read a two-digit numeral, identify the ordinal position of an object, or recognize the next number in a sequence.
  • 4% can do simple addition or subtraction.
  • 1% can do simple multiplication or division.
  • 20% of kindergartners can do more than count and read single-digit numerals.
  • 42% cannot count 20 objects or read more difficult single-digit numerals.
  • 36% of all children can count 10 objects and read easier numerals.
  • 6% of all kindergartners cannot count 10 objects and identify simple numerals and shapes; they are not yet at the first level of mathematics proficiency.

Differences in mathematics associated with risk factors:

  • 87% of children with multiple risk factors were at the lowest proficiency level.
  • 38% of the multiple risk group could count beyond 10 or make judgments of relative length, versus 48% of the single risk group and 68% of the no risk group.
  • 27% of the no risk group, 13% of the single risk group and 8% of the two or more risk group were at the third proficiency in mathematics.

According to teachers and parents::

  • Most kindergartners can get along with other children in a group situation.
  • 75% of kindergartners accept peer ideas for group activities and form and maintain friendships without difficulty.
  • 80-89% were described as easily joining others in play, forming friendships without difficulty and help or comforting others.
  • Only a small percentage of kindergartners exhibit argumentative, fighting or losing-their-temper behavior.
  • Between 66% - 75% of kindergartners exhibit positive approaches to learning "often" or "very often."
  • 25% of minority children are "never" or "sometimes" eager to learn.
  • 33% of minority children have difficulty paying attention in class.

U.S. Department of Education. Findings from The Condition of Education 2000. Office of Education Research and Improvement.

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Getting children ready for school and schools ready for children

Many communities have begun to develop programs and services that enhance school readiness. This brief considers not only child readiness but also the factors of readiness related to the child's family, early care and education, schools and communities.

How do we define school readiness?

According to National Educational Goals Panel, the definition of readiness includes the physical, social and emotional well-being and intellectual development of children. These are five dimensions of readiness:

  • Physical well-being and motor development. This includes health, growth, large and small motor skills and the conditions before, at and after birth, such as exposure to toxic substances.
  • Social and emotional development. Social development is a child's ability to interact socially and to exhibit positive social skills with peers and adults. Emotional development is how a child feels about him/herself and the ability to understand the emotions of others.
  • Approaches to learning. This is demonstrated by children in how they use skills, knowledge and capacities. Critical components are curiosity, enthusiasm and ability to stay with a task. Temperament and culture.
  • Language development. Children's verbal and emerging literacy, including print awareness, story sense and the writing process.
  • Cognition and general knowledge. Children have the ability to understand similarities, differences and associations from direct experiences with objects, peoples and events. They also can understand and recognize shapes, match certain sounds to letters and number concepts, e.g., counting with objects and one-to-one correspondence.

What are the characteristics of children ready for school?

  • Confident.
  • Cooperative.
  • Curious.
  • Intentional. Able to complete tasks on time.
  • Self-control. Able to monitor one's own behavior.
  • Capacity to communicate.
  • Able to concentrate.
  • Accepts school routines and curriculum.
  • Willingness to engage in tasks and master skills.
  • Willingness to accept school rules and authority.
  • Ability to work alone and in groups.
  • Ability to attend to detail and to the quality of one's work.

What are the characteristics of ready schools?

  • Smooth transitions between home and school that reflect respect and sensitivity to families, culture and language.
  • Continuity between early care and education programs and elementary schools.
  • Committed to the success of every child, teacher and every adult who interacts with children during the school day.
  • Researched-based approaches that raise achievement and are appropriate for children.
  • Responsibility for results.
  • Learning communities that alter practices and programs if they do not benefit children.
  • Strong leadership and resources to follow through on goals, visibility and accessibility.

What should be the goal of measuring school readiness in children?

The National Educational Goals Panel recommends that assessment should be age and linguistically appropriate and should include multiple sources of information from parents and teachers as well as direct assessment of children.

Assessment of children for school readiness should:

  • Shape instruction by identifying what they know and what they need more help with.
  • Identify children who may need health or other special services.
  • Examine trends and evaluate programs services to inform collective decisions.
  • Evaluate the academic accomplishment to hold individual students, teachers and school accountable for desired learning outcomes.

What are the characteristics of appropriate school readiness assessment?

  • Benefit children and the adults who work with children.
  • Used for the purpose for which they are designed.
  • Valid and reliable.
  • Age appropriate, using naturalistic observations to collect information as children interact in "real life" situations.
  • Holistic, collecting information on all developmental domains (physical, social, emotional and cognitive).
  • Linguistically and culturally appropriate.
  • Collect information through a variety of processes and multiple sources (collection of children's work, observations of children, interviews with children, parent reports, etc.)
  • Guide instruction not to determine children's placement in school. (Saluja, G., Scott-Little, C., Clifford, R.M, (in press)

What investments can communities make for school readiness?

Communities that want school readiness as a priority recognize the extensive body of research on child development that contributes to the framework for investment. Based on the meticulously evaluated programs or which longitudinal data is available, are components of promoting school readiness.

Child Health:

Physical and mental health are critical elements to school readiness and school success. Children and families must have access to:

  • Quality health care.
  • Pediatric monitoring.
  • Appropriate referrals and follow-ups.
  • Home visits as appropriate and on a voluntary basis.
  • Immunizations.

Children need:

  • Appropriate nutrition.
  • Safe from unintentional injury.
  • Healthy physical and mental health of parents and families.

Family Factors:

Family environment shapes children's early development:

  • Parent and child bonding and attachment and positive as well as sustaining parenting practices.
  • Most of what children learn early comes from their families
  • Parents are essential to child development: they design the home environment, organize the child's experiences, and are the child's primary source of information and support.
  • A child's parents are him/her first and most important teachers.
  • To foster the desire to learn parents should:
    • Display confidence in their child's ability.
    • Value education.
    • Encourage natural curiosity and stimulate it when they can.
    • Provide variety of new experiences.
    • Set goals for their child that are challenging but obtainable.
    • Help their child realize that mistakes are part of learning.
    • Teach by example.
    • Promote language and bonding by reading to their children, beginning from birth.

Early Care and Education:

Quality early care and education programs enhance children's cognitive, social and emotional development. Characteristics of high quality environments:

  • Promote and support all developmental domains.
  • Higher standard of health and safety practices.
  • Adults that support and provide stimulating environments.
  • Age-appropriate practices in curriculum and assessment and inclusive of culture and language.
  • Trained staff are adequately compensated
  • Responsive environments sensitive to the child as an individual and as part of the group.
  • Lower staff-child ratios.
  • Small group size.
  • Family-focused programs where parent relationships are important.


Boyer, E.L. (1991). Ready to Learn: A Mandate for the Nation. Princeton, N.J. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Cataldo, C.Z. (1987). Parent Education for Early Childhood. New York: Teachers College Press.

Child Trends: Executive Summary Community-Level Work on School Readiness: A Review of Definitions, Assessments and Investment Strategies. 2000. Washington D.C.: National Education Goals Panel.

Doherty, G. (1997). Zero to Six: The Basics for School Readiness. Ottawa: Human Resources Development Canada, Applied Research Branch, Strategic Policy.

Saluja, G., Scott-Little, C., Clifford, R.M. (in press) Readiness for School: A Survey of State Policies and Definitions. Early Childhood Research and Practice.

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The education of young children

In recent years, three major trends have put young children's care and education as a major priority in this country.

  • The majority of women in the work force, creating an unprecedented demand for child care.
  • Consensus with professionals and parents that young children should be provided educational experiences.
  • Evidenced-based research on the capacity of young children's learning, especially in quality pre-school environments.

What is more revealing from the research is how children learn, construct knowledge and develop skills. The research also underscores the need for children to have learning environments outside the home that support the full range of capacities that serve as the foundation of learning. This foundation must be grounded in the strengths and support of sensitive and responsive environments that build on culture, language and family.

What have we learned about young children?

  • Children's individual differences, their past experiences and their present context impacts their exposure to learning opportunities.
  • Stimulation from the environment can change the composition of the brain, interconnecting nature and nurture.
  • Supportive and responsible adults are critical to supportive learning environments.
  • Social skills and physical skills influence intellectual development and emotional development.
  • Social development and competence are developed and enhanced by nurturing relationships with teachers.
  • Group size and adult-child ratios have importance in children's learning, language development, exploration and problem-solving.
  • Learning is best achieved in young children in environments where children have a broad base of experiences rich in language and a variety of whole class, small group and individual interactions with peers and adults.
  • A child's development changes rapidly. Assessment of children's learning and development must be used carefully and appropriately.
  • Professional development of teachers is important to the quality of early childhood environments.
  • Programs that actively engage teachers and provide high quality supervision have been highly effective.
  • Young children who live in poverty, low level of maternal education and depression are at greater risk of school failure.

What are the key elements of curriculum and practice?

  • Teaching and learning are most effective when they engage, and build on, children's existing knowledge and understanding.
  • Key concepts involved in each area of pre-school learning must go hand in hand with acquiring information and skills.
  • Emergent literacy, print-rich environments where curricula focus on children's emergent understanding and provide concepts and knowledge lead to greater satisfaction and learning.
  • Daily experiences should allow children to learn more deliberately -- reflection, predicting, questioning and imagining.
  • Good teachers in the context of play and structured activities acknowledge and encourage children's efforts while they also model and demonstrate and provide direction and instruction.
  • Environments are based on child-initiative activities and activities planned by the teacher that also integrate educational goals for individual children.
  • Balance of child-initiated and teacher-initiated learning and good teachers support children in both types of learning.
  • Curriculum and assessment are inseparable to build quality. Learning and development are guided by a teacher's ability to use multiple sources to understanding what children bring to the interactions -- cognitively, culturally and developmentally.

Recommendations from Committee of Early Childhood Pedagogy National Research Council

            Professional Development

  1. Each group of children in an early childhood education and care program should be assigned a teacher with a bachelor's degree with specialized education related to early childhood.
  2. Education programs for teachers should provide a strong specific knowledge of the development of children's social and affective behavior, thinking and language.
  3. Teacher education programs should require mastery of information on the pedagogy of teaching pre-school children.
  4. A critical component of pre-service preparation should be a supervised, relevant student teaching internship experiences in which new teachers receive ongoing guidance and feedback from a qualified supervisor.
  5. All early childhood education and child care programs should have access to a qualified supervisor of early childhood education.
  6. Federal and state departments of education, human services and other agencies interested in young children and their families should initiate programs of research and development aimed at learning more about effective preparation of early childhood teachers.
  7. Develop demonstration schools for professional development.

    Educational Materials

  8. The U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and their equivalents at the state level should fund efforts to develop, design, field test and evaluate curricula that incorporates what is known about learning and thinking in the early years, with companion assessment tools and teacher guides.
  9. The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should support the use of effective technology, including videodiscs for pre-school teachers and Internet communication groups.


  10. All states should develop program standards for early childhood programs and monitor their implementation.
  11. Because research has identified content that is appropriate and important in early childhood programs, content standards should be developed and evaluated regularly to ascertain whether they adhere to current scientific understanding of children's learning.
  12. A single career ladder for early childhood teachers, with differentiated pay levels, should exist in each state.
  13. The federal government should fund well-planned, high-quality center-based pre-school programs for all children at high risk of school failure.

    The Public

  14. Organizations and government bodies concerned with the education of young children should actively promote public understanding of early childhood education and care.
  15. Early childhood programs and centers should build alliances with parents to cultivate complementary and mutually reinforcing environments for young children at home and in centers.

    Research on Early Learning and Development

  16. The next generation of research must examine more rigorously what programs produce beneficial outcomes for all children. Research also is needed on how programs can provide more helpful structures, curricula and methods for children at high risk of educational difficulties, including children from low-income homes and communities, children whose home language is not English, and children with developmental and learning disabilities.
  17. A broad program of research and development should be undertaken to advance the state of art of assessment in three areas: 1) classroom-based assessment to support learning; 2) assessment for diagnostic purposes, and 3) assessment of program quality for accountability and other reasons of public policy.
  18. Research to develop and evaluate alternatives for organizing, regulating, supporting and financing early childhood programs should be conducted to provide an empirical base for decisions.


Committee on Early Childhood Pedagogy, National Research Council: Eager To Learn: Educating Our pre-schoolers: Executive Summary: 2000.Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

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The importance of early brain development

Recent research has changed the way we think about brain development. We now know that the first three years are critical and the way a child's brain develops is highly influenced by experiences during this period. We also know that parents and caregivers interact with their young children and the experiences they provide them influence and guide their emotional development, learning skills and how they function later in life.

We know that touching, holding, rocking, talking, listening and reading or just playing with a child influences a child's brain development.

What does the research tell us about brain development?

  • From birth to age 5, children rapidly develop capabilities on which later development is based on and shaped by the interplay of nature and nurture.
  • Culture influences every aspect of human development and is reflected in child-rearing beliefs and practices that promote healthy adaptation.
  • The child's growth for regulation of behavior and physiology is the cornerstone of early childhood development.
  • Children actively participate in their own development, reflecting an internal human drive to explore and master one's environment.
  • Human relationships, and the effects of relationships on relationships, are the building blocks of healthy development.
  • The broad range of individual differences among young children often makes it difficult to distinguish normal variations and maturational delays from temporary disorders and recurrent impairments.
  • The course of development can be altered in early childhood by effective interventions that change the balance between risk and protection. Early environments that facilitate competence and a sense of personal value are more likely to foster children who do well.

How does attachment contribute to early brain development?

  • Many early experiences that guide brain development occur in the warm and secure relationship between a young child and a parent or caregiver.
  • When playing with young children, caregivers must be sensitive and responsive. The young children develop an understanding of cause-effect relations and their own effectiveness in getting help from others.
  • The emotional security that young children get from their attachments to parents and caregivers encourages them to explore their environment with confidence.
  • Parents and caregivers provide a sense of security by helping children to manage their emotions (when they become upset) and by limiting their exposure to situations that are too much for their coping skills. This sense of security supports growth of slowly developing structures in the brain that control self-regulation and self-control.

How can parents and caregivers nurture healthy brain development?

  • Give consistent loving care.
  • Provide balanced and nutritional feeding.
  • Listen and talk to infants and young children.
  • Keep children safe and healthy.
  • Provide a stable and consistent environment.
  • Provide age-appropriate activities.
  • Maintain positive environments.
  • Well-child visits to a pediatrician.

Selected Sources:
Jack P. Shonkoff and Deborah A. Phillips, Editors. (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press
De Bord, K. (1998). Brain Development, Extension Publication. Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.
Greenspan, S. (1997). Growth of the Mind. New York: Addison Wesley.
Shore, R. (1997). Rethinking the Brain: New Insights Into Early Development. New York: Families and Work Institute.

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The link between cost, quality and compensation in child care

Longitudinal research has demonstrated the healthy growth and development of young children depends on caring relationships with competent individuals in a stable environment. With a growing number of women entering the workforce, the environment that often provides these relationships is a child care setting. Recent estimates place almost 13 million pre-school children in some type of child care setting on a regular basis (West, Wright, & Hauskin, 1995). The experiences these children have in the child care setting will substantially impact their long-term physical, emotional, social and cognitive development, yet the majority of this care is provided by an unstable workforce often compensated at poverty-level wages with little or no health benefits. The high turnover rate, poor wages, lack of benefits and the public perception that "anyone can provide care" (Ripple, 2000) has led to a dearth of quality, affordable child care. Although children from all socioeconomic levels are affected by this quality crisis, poor children who have the greatest need and would benefit most from a quality early care and education setting stand to be the most severely affected.

Key Findings:

  • Annual job turnover rates range between 25 and 50% among child care workers.
  • 44% of child care workers earn less than $8.50 per hour, placing them at the low end of the wage range for all occupations. The average hourly wage for a pre-school teacher in the State of Florida is $7.96 and a child care worker is $6.43.
  • Only 18% of child care centers offer fully paid health coverage to teaching staff.
  • The Cost, Quality and Outcome Study (1995) found that only 36% of teachers had a bachelor's degree or higher. Only 33% of infant child care providers had any specialized training in child development, and only 18% had a bachelor's degree or higher.
  • Approximately 59% of children from low-income homes attend programs unlikely to provide the full range of child development, health, and parent services needed to support school readiness.
  • A 1995 survey of child care centers in four states revealed that only 8% of infant classrooms and 24% of pre-school classrooms were of good or excellent quality.


  • Among the major urban areas in Florida, Miami-Dade has the largest child population and the lowest number of licensed family child care homes -- fewer than 1 per 1,000 children.
  • Fewer than 1% of the family child care homes in Miami-Dade are licensed.
  • The proportion of licensed family child care homes in the mix of child care providers in Massachusetts is 76% versus 15-20% in Miami-Dade County.
  • The prices paid by the State of Florida for subsidized child care in Miami-Dade County are among the lowest of metropolitan areas in Florida despite a higher cost of living in Miami-Dade than other major urban areas of Florida (Wellesley Child Care Research Partnership, 2000).
  • Nationally accredited child care and early childhood education facilities are rare in Miami-Dade. A little more than 4% were accredited in 2001.

What "quality" child care means to young children

  • Children in higher quality child care as pre-schoolers are more socially competent in elementary school, are more empathetic and better liked by their peers (Vandell, Henderson, & Wilson, 1988).
  • Toddlers enrolled in high quality care engage in more pretend play and have more positive affect with their peers when they are pre-school age and demonstrate higher school adjustment ratings as kindergartners (Howes, 1990).
  • Children who attend higher quality child care have better language and math skills from the pre-school years into elementary school.
  • Better child care quality is more strongly related to better math skills and fewer problem behaviors from the pre-school years through second grade for children whose mothers have less education.

The adult-child ratio is one predictor of quality in center and family child care.

  • In smaller groups, adults spend more time interacting with children and less time simply watching them.
  • Children in smaller groups are more verbal, more involved in activities, less aggressive, and make the greatest gains in standardized tests of learning and vocabulary (Ruopp, Travers, Glantz, & Coelen, 1977).
  • Children in groups with better care giving and developmentally appropriate activities show greater competence with their peers (Howes, Phillips, & Whitebook, 1992).
  • Infants and toddlers are more likely to imitate adult gestures and speech -- a critical mechanism for learning -- when there are fewer children per adult (Francis & Self, 1982).
  • Child language and play behaviors are positively related to lower ratios of children to adults. Children in centers with more than three children per adult experienced the most crying and adult restriction (Howes & Rubenstein, 1985).

Staff qualifications

  • Child-related training is linked to more social interaction between the caregiver and children, more cooperation and task persistence among children, and less time by children uninvolved in activities (Ruopp, Travers, Glantz & Coelen, 1979).
  • When caregivers have a higher level of child-related training and formal training, children score better on tests of cognitive and social competence.
  • Teacher preparation (both pre-service and in-service) significantly predicts program quality, and better program quality is linked with more positive-child outcomes, especially in terms of language and representational skills -- all critical areas for school success.
  • Overall education levels of caregivers also appear to positively affect outcomes for children (Berk, 1985; Whitebook, Howes, Phillips, 1989).
  • Caregivers with more training have less authoritarian childrearing styles and slightly more knowledge about child development. Teachers with more training received more positive ratings in observations and are less punitive to and detached from children (Arnett, 1989).

Linking quality care to cost of services

  • The 1999 Cost, Quality and Outcomes Study demonstrated the link between the cost of services and the quality of care received by children.
  • Research indicates teacher compensation is closely linked to the quality of services in child care.
  • Teacher compensation issues are important to address in any initiatives for improvement in child care quality. Teacher salaries are so low that trained teachers leave the early childhood field in great numbers, resulting in overall lower levels of teacher qualifications and child care quality.
  • Child care programs are much more successful at retaining staff when they model their wage scales after the salaries of workers in other fields who have comparable levels of education and training.
  • "Teachers can't afford to stay. Parents can't afford to pay. There's got to be a better way" (Slogan from the Center for the Child Care Workforce).

Potential Strategies for Change

  • Child care subsidies should be redesigned to offer incentives for providing high quality care. These subsidies should ensure that efforts are not only targeted to improving the quality of services but also providing higher compensation for teachers.
  • Strengthen standards and regulations for child care programs.
  • Require initial and ongoing training for staff working in child care programs.
  • Find ways to recruit and retain more highly educated and skilled staff.
  • Inform parents about the importance of quality child care and its effects on children.
  • Identify ways to support the costs of higher quality child care.
  • Increase public funds for early childhood programs that include targeted compensation initiatives.
  • Raise the minimum wage for child-care workers and improve benefits.
  • Educate the public and mobilize powerful constituencies including the media, the business community, policymakers and the aging baby boomer generation.
  • Link child- and elder-care quality campaigns.
  • Unionize/organize the early childhood workforce.


A.L. Mailman Foundation and the Foundation for Child Development (2000). Economics of Caring Labor: Improving Compensation in the Early Childhood Workforce. [On-line]. Available: http://www.ffcd.org.

Center for the Child Care Workforce (2000). Current data on child care salaries and benefits in the United States. (Available from Center for the Child Care Workforce at 733 15th St., NW., Suite 1037, Washington, D.C. 20005-2112.)

Child Care Bulletin (1997, July/August). Child Care Providers: Key to Quality Care. [On-line]. Available: http://www.nccic.org/ccb/ccb-ja97/ccb-ja97.html

Cost, Quality, and Child Outcome Study Team (1995). Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes in Child Care Centers Public Report. Economics Department, University of Colorado-Denver.

Cost, Quality and Child Outcome Study Team (1999). The Children of the Cost, Quality and Outcomes Study Go to School. Executive summary. [On-line]. Available: http://www.fpg.unc.edu/~NCEDL/PAGES/cques.html

NAEYC Public Affairs Division. Research on effects of group size and ratios and staff training on child care quality. (Available from National Association for the Education of Young Children at 1834 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009).

National Center for Early Development and Learning, Early Childhood Research & Policy Briefs, (1997, Summer). Quality in child care centers.

Part One: The Quality Crisis: Realities, Roots, Significance, Timing. [On-line]. Available: http://nccic.org/pubs/bychance/part 1.html

Patten, P. (2000, March-April). Child Care Compensation: What Does It Mean for Parents? [On-line], Available: http://npin.org/pnews/2000/pnew300/spot300.html

Wellesley Child Care Research Partnership, (1998). Changes in Quality, Price and Availability of Child Care in the Welfare Reform Era. [On-line], Available: www.wellesley.edu/Economics/partner

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